Digital Humanities: Bringing History to the Public
This article is the result of a conversation I had over Facebook messaging, in response to this HTTP article on digital humanities (DH). I have been living off campus in the so-called ‘real’ world for over a year now, having completed my MPhil in Renaissance Literature at the University of Cambridge in ’14. As an introduction, this information is pertinent insofar as it highlights that,
• I am not a historian by training.
• Conversations about digital humanities will continue regardless of whether or not one is in academia.
• Conversations about digital humanities will continue to resonate beyond academia and with the Public (as this blog is so aptly named).
The first point I will supplement by drawing comparisons between the literary and historical disciplines, and the usefulness of digital humanities to the dissemination and production of knowledge. I leave the second point at the door, as it is axiomatic. The third, however, I will discuss more broadly in terms of how the ‘digital’ is shaping our humanity.
A self-proclaimed bibliophile, I have always had my reservations about DH. Indeed, it was those reservations that steered me away from a more progressive and innovative master’s at UVic, towards the palaeography-and-book-history-intensive MPhil course at Cambridge. As I have written previously, DH places the digital above the human, in that it elevates the quantitative aspects of humanities research above the qualitative. I chose Cambridge’s program because I wanted to return to my primary texts, and situate my research within a purely historical, as opposed to digital, context. Along the way, I figured I might be able to unite the two opposing factions of book historicists and digital humanists: those in favour of close-reading, as opposed to Franco Moretti’s camp of ‘distant’ readers.
Let’s talk about the Production of Knowledge. If you’ve ever been to a DHSI summer camp, you’ll know that the rallying cry of a digital humanist is to ‘augment’ or ‘enhance’ our understanding of a subject, historical or literary, using digital tools. During my undergrad, I was the primary collaborator for the Augmented Criticism Lab, a DH initiative to automate the detection of rhetorical figures in Shakespeare.1 This was arguably the most intellectually challenging project I have ever undertaken. Not only did it demand I learn the basics of programming, it also overwrote the theoretical and methodological underpinnings of my entire undergraduate program. In my final post, this was all I could make of DH:
“What programming has to offer is a new perspective on poetics. Teaching the computer teaches us everything we don’t know about Shakespeare’s poetry. Programming Shakespeare forces us to distinguish between ordinary and poetic language; to define the boundaries of a clause. Like a child building a sandcastle, the computer sifts through ordinary language for rhetorical gems.” 2
In other words, DH teaches literary critics the necessity of collaboration with computer scientists and linguists for the production of new knowledge.3 Moreover, it forecasts the inadequacy of our own disciplinary training. This is not to say that all previous research is flawed or that the new approach is flawless. Rather digitalism is the driving force behind the current identity crisis in the humanities: what is a humanist? How do we read? How do we conduct research? How do we manage and store information?
What can I say? Life and canonical literature are full of ironies and questions, and as a grad student I was overly ambitious. DH is fraught with problems, most of which are political and bureaucratic and have nothing to do with the production of knowledge whatsoever.4 I credit the University of Cambridge with two things: giving me a fuller appreciation of history in the form of fifteenth-century architecture, and highlighting the importance of collaboration. Indeed, bureaucratic differences between institutions are what inhibit collaboration and therefore the dissemination of knowledge. The University of Calgary’s online resources are much more streamlined and easily accessed than Cambridge’s. At Cambridge, I once had to ring the bell of a neighbouring College to talk to the porter, who rang the librarian, who walked from the library to escort me and supervise my reading of an unremarkable copy of Philip Gaskell’s New Introduction to Bibliography. I was not allowed to borrow it, being a member of a different College, although a member of the same university. Had there been a digital copy of Gaskell’s ‘Not-so-new’ Introduction, perhaps more students would have consulted it.
Still, in defense of Cambridge, there are many separate, College-based efforts to digitize primary documents.5 The point is that the College system is at odds with the dissemination of knowledge, even within the ten-mile radius of Great St Mary’s Church. While the democratization of knowledge may be perilous to the academic peer-review system, in an age where Google is the new nation-state, it is inevitable. Leading institutions might as well embrace it and use their authority to supervise the production and encoding of digital facsimiles and editions.
As Marshall McLuhan famously punned, “the medium is the massage.” At the risk of sounding Marxist, I believe that the materiality of a text invariably shapes its distribution and reception. This of course, is why leading institutions such as Cambridge should be in charge of digitization: the process requires a thorough knowledge of the History of the Book, as well as careful consideration of the philosophical and hermeneutic implications of transforming textual artifacts into digital facsimiles. It demands an awareness of the evolution of our beloved paperback, which began as a scroll before the invention of the codex. Back in the fourth century AD, the book was a new technology and the means by which Christian doctrine was transported and concealed. Papyrus became parchment, which allowed for an exponential increase in the production and dissemination of texts. A Western History of the Book might suggest that history is cyclical, if we consider the most recent transformation of books into ‘scrolling’ documents or pages–such as you are reading now. These layers of history ought to be present, if only latently, in every digital reproduction of a primary text.
Both my undergraduate and graduate dissertations focussed on the materiality of the text: its impact on readers and, by extension, on the meaning of that text.6 There is plenty of talk right now about how the digital revolution is impacting our lifestyles, relationships, and even our bodies. From literary studies to neuroscience, researchers are considering the difference between digital and printed texts. Studies reveal that reading behaviours change with the online medium, as readers develop shorter attention spans and tend to skim. Still, it would seem that digitalism encourages lateral thinking, in linking readers to related content. Just as the invention of the printing press revolutionized Europe, so digital technology restructures every aspect of modern life: from the way we flirt, to our sleeping patterns and educational systems. How will our children’s children read and synthesize new information? Is this the end of the book as we know it?
If I have strayed from my bullet points, it is only to outline the complexity of this topic and the ways in which my experiences as a researcher have made me skeptical, yet necessarily in favour of DH methods. How could I be otherwise? In a world where political and artistic movements employ technology to make a statement,7 researchers ought to too. Indeed, the tone of this article is more academic than I would have liked. For while this and other posts on this site are undoubtedly aimed at an academic readership, the ultimate DH project is to bring History to the Public in its most objective, yet compelling form. To maintain the purity of academic research while making it accessible and relevant to the public is our greatest challenge. No matter what happens, we must never forget that we are, first and foremost, humanists–even if the ‘digital’ in ‘DH’ does come first. As humanists then, let’s raise a glass to challenges, to change, and to a continuation of this conversation with the public.
About the author
Sarah Hertz graduated with a Master’s (MPhil) in Renaissance literature from the University of Cambridge (2013-14), where she completed a dissertation on seventeenth-century devotional reading practices under the supervision of Dr Jason Scott-Warren. From 2011-2013, she worked as a research assistant at the University of Calgary, designing a first-year digital humanities course and an algorithm to detect rhetorical figures in Shakespeare, under the direction of Dr Michael Ullyot. Her undergraduate thesis is cited in the latest issue of JMA (Journal of Mathematics and the Arts).
Currently, she is coaching the youngest squad of Calgary Patriots (P-too) while travelling, paying off grad school debt, and working as a lifeguard and swim instructor. She also volunteers regularly at local arts events, such as Market Collective and Wordfest.
- And very nearly a collaborator for the Map of Early Modern London, a DH project at UVic.
- See the original.
- Tiia Sahrakorpi notes this in her DH post.
- Polemicists often cite the corporatization of the university and the confusion of DH ‘tools’ with ‘toys.’
- Such as the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music and the University of California’s English Broadside Ballad Archive, which house the Pepys Library’s musical manuscripts and broadside ballads respectively.
- My undergraduate thesis was, in effect, an exploration of semantics and materiality through the construction of a website. At Cambridge, I researched the effect of biblical harmonies on monastic life: cut-and-paste Bibles done by a family at Little Gidding, in the 1630s.
- The social justice movement Harassmap uses mobile technology to track and map sexual harassment in Egypt, while companies like MPact problematize technology in terms of youth homelessness and forming a real ‘connection.’